Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Format(s): Xbox One (Reviewed), Playstation 4, PC
We’re a little spoilt for choice as far as open-world RPGs go these days, with releases like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Fallout 4, and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim in particular standing out as ‘go to’ titles for gamers. Whilst these big name AAA releases gather a lot of attention though, there are smaller developers out there who like to throw their own titles into the mix too, some of which actually offer experiences that could easily hold their own when compared to some of those aforementioned big hitters.
ELEX is the latest open-world RPG to make the rounds, with developer Piranha Bytes offering their most ambitious title yet after gaining some popularity following the release of their previous titles, Gothic and Risen. Whilst there’s certainly a lot more ambition on show in ELEX though, the end product has turned out to be… well… not that good.
ELEX is set on Maglan: a planet that got struck by a meteor that brought with it a strange energy source known as ELEX. Given the mysterious powers offered by the resource, different factions grew across the planet with them all battling it out to gain as much of it as possible – all for different reasons.
You take on the role of Jax, a commander in the Albs faction that absorb ELEX to become more powerful. Of course, with all this power there’s bound to be some animosity, and Jax finds himself betrayed by one of his colleagues whilst out on what should be a simple mission. Thus begins a greater journey for Jax, where he finds himself trying to find out why he was betrayed but also to discover more about the world and the effect that ELEX has on it.
This means going between the three other factions of the world and completing missions for them. The three factions on offer are an eclectic bunch and each have some unique traits: you’ve got the Berserkers of Eden who live an almost barbaric life that don’t use futuristic technology but instead use ELEX for magical purposes, the Outlaws who embrace an almost dystopian lifestyle that sees them focusing on using guns, and the Clerics of Ignadon who have fully embraced the potential that ELEX offers and use it to power up their advanced technology.
Working between them all can actually be quite interesting, especially since you’re given so much freedom in how you decide to approach each situation or mission in the game. There’s never just one way to tackle events, with multiple branches on offer thats consequences might not come to fruition until later in the game. It’s something I appreciated though and it ensures missions can play out in a fashion that better suited your character and playstyle.
On the flip-side, some of the writing in the game is quite drab so actually going through so many lines of text to get to these choices could be quite painful. Whilst ELEX certainly has characters and quests that’ll grab your attention, it’s also full to the brim with nonsense and side missions that’ll bore you rather than entertain. It’s certainly a mixed bag and whilst the main plotline and missions offer enough for the most part, there’s also a fair share of boring interactions too.
You’re able to level up Jax and equip him with different equipment, though the game has some balance issues that makes it difficult to really get a good setup sorted for a while. It’ll take a fair bit of investment before you’ll even start to get him feeling powerful and armed with abilities and equipment that’ll allow him to hold his own, especially with the game’s lack of level scaling. It took me a good while to actually start finding consistent success on missions, whilst some were quick to overwhelm me even in the game’s early hours. Newbies to the genre certainly might find it hard to find their feet in the game, whilst its unforgiving nature might provide some RPG veterans with a few problems too.
ELEX is a pretty tough game in design, though it isn’t helped by the somewhat clunky combat mechanics. In a similar vein to the Dark Souls series, all of your actions are dictated by a stamina bar. You can mix together light attacks with heavy attacks, whilst you’ve also got a dodge action to quickly avoid incoming attacks. You’ll eventually learn different abilities too, whilst you can also equip a variety of weapons that work in different ways – you can shoot out at enemies in the style of a third person shooter for example, or alternatively focus on up-close melee action.
Whilst the mechanics on display will be familiar to most gamers, their execution here isn’t perfect. There’s a clunky feel to combat, whilst the animations themselves are lacking in fluidity. It all feels a bit underwhelming and never that satisfying – it’s almost like ELEX simply offers half-baked demonstrations of combat mechanics that similar RPGs have managed to get right, which in turn cheapens the experience as a whole.
The fact that the game is tricky doesn’t help, especially since you’ll be dying so often that it becomes hard to get used to the combat mechanics and really find out how to best utilise them. At the same time though, as you grow in power in the game, the combat becomes can feel a bit better – I don’t know whether or not gamers will have the patience to last through the opening five hours or so of mediocrity to see these improvements, though.
One thing that ELEX did get right though was the design of its world. You’ve got the freedom to explore its large open-world as you please, with your jetpack making it easy to reach just about any area – it follows the mantra of ‘if you can see it, you can reach it’, making exploration quite the surprising treat.
Whilst it’s doesn’t feature the most visually impressive world you’re ever going to see (ELEX has visuals that could easily be mistaken for a last-gen console title), the variety of each environment and the little details that they hide makes exploring Maglan really enjoyable. It actually makes it feel a bit more disappointing that the gameplay isn’t up to much, because Piranha Bytes have managed to absolutely nail the game’s exploration mechanics.
Of course, having the freedom to explore as you please can lead you into some tricky situations where you face off against some nasty over-powered enemies, so you can expect to die a lot if you don’t at least stick to the script a bit. This isn’t always just a case of reaching areas where you’re under-leveled either; there are lots of wild creatures and random enemies out there that want nothing but to kill you. It’s an impressive little world to explore, but it too suffers from the fact that ELEX’s opening hours are unforgiving.
It’s worth noting that when playing on the Xbox One I came across quite a few technical issues, with sporadic drops in framerate being the main culprit. It’s pretty frustrating to see the game start lagging mid-combat, especially when using ranged weapons that demand accuracy. Other times it would slow down for no reason at all, with no mass of characters or scenery surrounding me. It’s baffling and shows that ELEX’s console ports might’ve benefited from a bit longer in the oven.
There’s also the fact that the in-game text is a bit too small, which might not be a problem for everyone but actually bothered me a lot. In RPGs like this, there’s a lot of inventory management and reading taking place, so the fact that I had to physically lean forward to read some of the text was a bit of a pain.
ELEX had a lot of potential to stand out as an interesting open-world RPG thanks to the freedom it grants the player and its very enjoyable exploration, but unfortunately some technical issues and an underwhelming combat system stop it from being that fun. It’s also very tough, with the often unforgiving difficulty being enough to put me off wanting to play the game – if I didn’t have to review it, I could’ve easily seen myself quitting after a few hours.
To its credit, it does get better the further you progress and it does demonstrate a few good ideas, but they still don’t stop the game from being hard to recommend. I mentioned at the start of this review that there are plenty of great open-world RPGs available right now, and if I’m being honest you’re probably better off sticking with them rather than playing ELEX.